Sunday, April 27, 2014

DA’s Dene Smuts a rare bird in SA’s political aviary

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14 Apr 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts
 Although Smuts always stood for principle, she adapted to meet the dramatically changed circumstance she lived through, writes Tony Leon

ON SEPTEMBER 6 1989, the voters of the Groote Schuur constituency elected a well-known journalist and prize-winning author to Parliament for the first time. Her name was Dene Smuts. She was then 40 years old.

On the same day, more than 1,500km away, the voters of Houghton, Johannesburg, also elected me, for the first time, to Parliament. And thus it was, a few days after that watershed election, which propelled FW de Klerk to the presidency of South Africa, that I first met Smuts in the caucus of the Democratic Party (DP). Smuts is made of far sterner stuff than me and she lasted in Parliament five years beyond my own departure in 2009.

When any career of political significance ends, I believe there are three important questions to answer. I have taken the liberty of posing them and providing the answers in respect of Smuts:

• Did the person who held public office make a difference for the better and leave behind a legacy for others to emulate?

• Did the person fundamentally uphold the first principles of the causes she was entrusted to serve?

• Did the person keep faith with these values, but also adapt to the changed environment so that her contribution would not just be about consistency but also about achievement and relevance?

When we reflect on the performance and the role played by Smuts, we can say with great certainty that her 25 years in Parliament answer each of them with a "yes".

• In all her roles, as the first female whip in Parliament, as a constituency MP, as a front-bench opposition spokeswoman on home affairs, communications, and latterly in justice and constitutional development, Smuts made a huge difference. Perhaps for us, being at the coal face and in the negotiation chamber as the 1993 and the final 1996 constitutions were being inked marked our finest hours. In each of these varied roles, Smuts brought that rare trifecta of attributes to the fore: a keen intelligence, a fierce commitment to, and understanding of, the cardinal issues, and what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "10,000 hour rule": the backbreaking, line-by-line hard work needed to move beyond rhetoric and aspiration toward concrete achievement and credible result. She did not succeed at all times — objectively as a member of a minority party she could not.

But if you look at the attempts to carve out a coherent and modern communications policy, the Bill of Rights in the constitution, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a proper process for judicial appointments, the independence of the legal profession and latterly the significant improvements in the Protection of State Information Bill, you might wish to go to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. And not just because it is both beautiful and was part of Smuts’s first constituency. If you wander around, you will find the burial stone of its pioneering botanist, Henry Harold Pearson, who died in 1916. His epitaph reads: "If ye seek his monument, look around."

Smuts has a singular advantage over Pearson as she is still happily and vigorously with us. But if you look into the detail and depths of her legislative and constitutional achievements, those words provide an apt and living tribute to her accomplishments.

• On the second question, Smuts and I probably had as many disagreements as we had meetings of the mind. But when she and I and other colleagues clashed with her, it was always about a big issue, not about personal slight. In a political world where disagreement and dissent are often a synonym for disloyalty, I can attest to the fact that not once did Smuts ever advance a point to gain personal advantage or ingratiate herself with the leadership. But she always advanced her view, often in the teeth of immense resistance. When I think back to the most difficult days of survival for this party and its cause, when Smuts and I were two of the surviving seven MPs after 1994, I never had to watch my back as leader, because she always had it covered.

And when fortune or the electorate smiled much more favourably upon us in 1999, she took not just a front rank in the caucus of the official opposition and Parliament, but provided a role model to new and inexperienced MPs, a mentoring role she continued to play after 2004 and 2009. And as this party expands further in size after the May 7 election, new MPs would do well to emulate another of Smuts’s attributes when the party machine makes demands of its MPs and reduces the role of the individual legislator to a sort of glorified constituency manager. It is this: there are two types of politicians. You can either be a weather vane or a signpost. If you are the former, you will twist in the wind, depend for your key adviser on the last person you spoke to and try to suck up to those in power and trim your sails to the prevailing winds. That is the easy path of least resistance, but it usually leads, over time, downhill. Or you can be the rarer bird in the political aviary, a signpost, which does not bend to the vagaries of the moment but stands for a cause greater than personal advancement or temporary vote-winning, for an enduring set of principles and beliefs. Beyond argument, Smuts belongs in the second category.

• The answer to the third question appears to be a contradiction of the second answer, but on examination it is not. Because, although Smuts always stood for principle, she adapted them to meet the dramatically changed circumstance we lived through. Whether it was the modernisation of old Afrikaans institutions such as her alma mater, the University of Stellenbosch, or the placement of second- and third-generation rights in the constitution, Smuts was a modernist. And so, to create a liberal and democratic state of meaning to the bulk of South Africans, you had to, in her view, make it relevant beyond the traditional and narrow confines of simply containing the power of the state, important though that is.

But I don’t want to simply reflect a worthy political life of high achievement and no light-heartedness. Smuts can be uproariously funny. I leave you with two nuggets I can repeat in public. On the 1996 local government election day in Cape Town, Smuts and I were visiting the Fernwood polling station. Our reception from voters was very muted and Smuts waspishly observed to me: "Ja. You know why those people were looking at their shoes instead of at us?" "No, why?" I responded. "Because they know they should be voting for us, but actually they are going to be voting for someone else."

Around the same time, we were having a tiresome debate in Parliament about the underperformance and maladministration of the Gender Commission — a chapter 9 institution, then, as now, of some constitutional importance but, in practice, of unsurpassed uselessness. The chair of the commission came to Parliament and demanded a larger budget. Smuts’s response was classic: "You don’t need more money; you need a good brain between your ears and a good pen to write with!"

Although we associate her with the southern suburbs and much of her public life has been conducted in English, it is worth recording that she is "’n trotse Vrystater" of origin and her mother tongue is Afrikaans. So allow me to conclude with one of the great poems from the canon of Eugene Marias:

’n Druppel gal is in die soetste wyn;
’n traan is op elk’ vrolik snaar,
In elke lag ’n sug van pyn,
In elke roos ’n dowwe blaar.

• This is an edited version of a speech by Leon at Bishops (Diocesan College) on Sunday night.


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